The half way point

It's that time of the year again... Summer is in full swing, I'm exhausted, over-committed, the "must-do" lists are pilling up, and I can't stop thinking about what comes next. 

This isn't a new feeling, but every year it has a new flavor. The first year I started the business it was a feeling of dread: "how on earth am I going to keep it together for the rest of the season?? This job is impossible!". The second year it was: "holy moly I've grown too fast. This is too much, there's no way we can keep this up". This year it's more like: "wait, I thought I was supposed to have learned something about this business, why is it still so hard?". 

So to help myself process, here are a few reflections for the record. 

  • There is a demand for what we're doing. I remain incredibly grateful and surprised at how appreciative, supportive, and forgiving our customers are. People need and want good food and they respond well to our style of growing and selling. Even when I feel like we're not doing our best you all buoy my spirits by showing up to market week after week. This keeps me going, and it makes me feel like this business has potential no matter how hard or long the days are.   
  • The model is still not sustainable. I think we're getting closer every year, but we're not there yet. I have this elusive vision of a farm business that can support a family. We will do it through a diverse set of activities which, combined, should be able to provide enough income without too much work—I mean, 12 hours a day in the summer is cool, but 15 is too much. After all, I'm going to get old one of these days... So how do we make it work? 
  • We're doing too much. To date my strategy for achieving the elusive sustainability goal has been to just throw everything out there and see what sticks—farm share meets markets, meets farm camp, meets farm dinners, and educational tours. Now let's add chickens and sheep and maybe beef? But what about the flowers and the events and the weddings? There just aren't enough hours in the day. And, as a result, things start to slip—beds are are not weeded on time, the bug pressure escalates, the marketing projects linger.. I know the first rule in business is to focus on your core strength and not spread too thin, but my dreams are big and the financial challenges are real. So how and what to we pare back? 
  • I'm not giving up. My two true problems are impatience and unrealistic expectations. This is only our third year in business. Most businesses take 5 years before breaking even—we've been in the black since the first year. We have room to grow, experiment, and shift our strategies. Even with this season's particular setbacks we're still meeting our financial goals, and there's no reason to believe that the rest of the season won't be just as positive. 

Anyway, that's it for now. I'm sure I'll have more thoughts and dreams to put down as the season progresses, but for now there are chickens to feed and family to enjoy... it is Sunday after all :). 

Strawberries!

We did it! Year one of Thornfield Farm strawberries is a wrap. 

Strawberries are a new and significant crop for the farm. We are growing strawberries on an annual schedule—planted in the late summer/fall, over-wintered, and pushed to an early harvest in May. I stole this strategy from our friends at Six River Farm in Maine, where I learned everything I know about farming, and it worked really well for us this year. Of course, there were a lot of unexpected twists and turns and we will do some things differently next time, but I have to say, on the whole it was a great success! 

So in honor of our first solid year as berry growers, here's a recap of our efforts and some learnings for next year. 

The harvest:

  • Our first berries came in the third week of April—we ate a few as a family and sold the first few pints at our Saturday market on April 22nd 
  • The berries produced steadily for 5 full weeks 
  • In total we harvested and sold 804 pints grossing almost $3,500
  • The berries peaked in their fourth week bringing in 223 pints. 
  • Heading into the 6th week we expect there will be a few berries on the plants, but we'll just keep em' around for the family members to munch on—it's time for the team to move on to harvesting our summer crops! 

The expenses:

  • Last fall we bought 1,000 plants at $.35 a plant costing a total of about $400 after transport
  • We spent another $500 or so in labor, including planting, preparing beds, weeding, and covering the berries through the fall and winter
  • Harvesting was by far the largest expense in the operation. To keep up with the fruit we harvested three times a week. Three of us picked for an anywhere from an hour and three hours each harvest leading to an estimated $1,000 labor expense on the whole 5 week harvest
  • in total the berries cost about $2,000 to produce

The results:

  • For the whole crop we netted approximately $1,500 this spring
  • We also benefitted from the intangible profit of having such a desirable crop available so early in our season. It is challenging in the early spring to produce really exciting crops—I mean, we all love lettuce, but it's got nothing on a sweet, juicy berry! 
  • It's a short and sweet season, but definitely worth the effort!!

But, those are just the numbers. We also learned a ton (and suffered from some of the lessons learned), so here's the list of what we found and what I hope to do better next year: 

Learnings: 

  • Different varieties produce very different results! We grew two varieties this year; Sweet Charlie and Chandler. The Sweet Charlies came in first, and they are incredibly sweet and delicate. The berries are on the smaller side and they have a tendency to be a bit deformed, but the flavor is unbelievable. The Chandlers were much more productive, came in a bit later, and could be a little too tart in flavor if harvested too early. Also, the Chandlers seemed to get sweeter and more complex in flavor as the season went on, particularly with more rain/irrigation. 
  • Covering is a mixed-bag. We tried a number of covering/forcing strategies to help the plants bloom more prolifically and earlier. These efforts came with very mixed results. One half of our plants were protected with row cover all winter. These berries were also in a slightly warmer location. As a result they produced more blossoms much earlier in the season. They also suffered much more significantly from the late frost we had in March—I estimate we lost about a third of our harvest potential from those plants from that frost. After the frost we covered this first, warmer section of berries with a low tunnel system that had them under greenhouse plastic very close to the plants. Ultimately, these plants were not nearly as healthy as the other patch. I think the combination of the frost and the following intense heat put stress on the plants and allowed the pests (we had a real irritating infestation of spider mites) to spread more rapidly.

In the upper field we had a separate planting that turned out much better. This planting was neglected all fall/winter and as a result did not have nearly as many blooms affected by the March frost. We also mulched the area with straw, which I think slowed the plants a bit but helped them develop more blooms in the long run. In this upper planting we experimented with a DIY hoop house. This tunnel was about 7 feet high at the center and covered two of the three beds. In the beginning it did seem to be making a difference—those plants seemed to bloom more, earlier. However, by the end all of the plants were producing pretty equally and I'm not sure it made a huge difference.

  • Rain? We had a ton of rain toward the end of the season. At that point we had taken all of the covers off of all the plants and just let the chips fall as they would. I was surprised that the berries held up as well as they did. I feared that the rain would cost us a significant portion of the harvest, and we did lose some to rot/damage. But, overall we still raked in a lot of fruit. Also, particularly for the later variety (the Chandlers), the excess moisture seemed to enhance the flavor. So... I don't really know what the lesson is there, but the berries are certainly tougher than I feared! 

Looking ahead:

  • We're going to grow our own plugs! Both of the varieties turned out to be great in different ways, so we are going to allow our mama plants to "runner out" and transplant these baby strawberries into a new location. 
  • We're going to buy in some new varieties as "bare-root" plants. Last year we wanted to plant them much later in the fall so there were no bare roots available, but since we're also transplanting some of our own this year we should be able to do them all in-sync. 
  • We're going to cover half the crop (the later berries) in straw mulch over the winter and let them come on more slowly. The other half we'll cover well in the winter and be much more mindful to protect them from frost when they bloom in the early spring! 

Here's to another great berry harvest in 2018! 

  

Building a homestead

I never thought I would be one of those people who had farm animals as pets. I never thought I would be one of those people who named a farm animal. I never thought I would be one of those people who welcomed strangers into my home to enjoy a virtual petting zoo. And yet.... 

This past year Alex and I moved into a precious log cabin perfectly situated on the edge of our vegetable fields. It is picturesque, easily accessible to the road and the barns. It has a yard built for an energetic mutt, and just enough acreage to support a little mini-farm within the larger farm.  Last fall, we hosted our first on-farm dinner and invited farm share members onto our land and into our home. Then we got 60 chickens, built a new chicken house, and moved all the hens and both of their houses into our yard. THEN we bought sheep—this really sealed the deal. We built a new barn, put up a fence and welcomed our farm pets into our lives. These sheep are an amazingly friendly, good-natured (and tasty!!) breed. So we fell in love.. and we invited more people over to visit them. Now, just a few months later... they're having babies!!!! This is definitely something we wanted—I mean, who doesn't want a bunch of beautiful baby lambs bouncing around??? Well, we weren't prepared for just HOW cute they would be...they're really cute. Also, I didn't realize how much the animals would contribute to the fullness and joy of our lives. Waking up in the morning to let the sheep out and then drinking my coffee while they leap around in the grass outside of our window really does complete my imagined dream of the perfect pastoral scene. 

Don't be mistaken, we are really looking forward to reaping the rewards of our sheep labor in the form of delicious meat next year. Fundamentally we believe in raising meat humanely for harvest. These St Croix sheep would not exist in Virginia (or anywhere in the US) if they weren't being raised for meat—that is their purpose here. As such, it is not a contradiction for me to raise these animals as pseudo-pets, snuggle with them as babies, and carry them through their lives as best we see fit. Further, we want to invite our community in to witness this process and "meet your meat," as they say.   

SO, of course we must invite everyone out to share this idyllic spring, right?? Yes. Ergo... the new little on-farm market we're hosting Tuesday afternoons. I know it's a trek for most of our customers, and I don't have expectations of making big bucks at this stand. But, just 3 weeks in I can already feel the love of our little home reverberating out through friends and farm share members. It's just impossible not to enjoy sharing the cute hops and snuggles of a baby lamb, and an errant, rogue chicken, and our new perennial flower beds, and (of course) our nourishing vegetables.

I guess, it turns out, I am one of those people :)  

Anxiety

Maybe it's the wind, maybe it's the unseasonably warm temps, maybe it's all of the new baby seedlings bursting forth with new life in the greenhouse—I don't know, but I have to admit to some vaguely overwhelming small-business-owner anxiety this week.

What if no one wants to buy our produce? What if we can't grow enough? What if my assumptions are wrong and all of the new plans for this year fall flat? Eek!

I suppose this happens every year around now. Money is tight and expenses are high. I'm starting to emerge from the warm cocoon of winter vacation life. There is so much to do!! I have a ton of ideas that have been circling in my mind all winter, but now is the moment when they either have to be tabled for another year or I really need to buckle down and make them happen.

So, perhaps in an effort to exorcise these anxiety demons through the act of expression, here's a list of worries:

  1. Have I planned well enough for the vegetable production this year? I spent less time on the planning this year than I have in the past two. Largely that's because I already know what I want to do. We learned a lot last year—which was a lot more than the enormity that we learned the first year, and from those learnings I came out of this past season with a pretty clear vision of what I wanted to do with the vegetable production for 2017. So that should be good right? But what if I'm wrong????? What if I'm just giving myself the easy way out and really I should have somehow buckled down more and changed something more dramatically... It's really hard to keep hold of the faith and confidence I had last October coming fresh off a successful season in the face of a winter full of bills and an unknown new season ahead.
  2. Can I really make this flower business work? I've been circling around the goal of growing flowers for weddings, events, and florists since I started the farm. I love growing flowers and every year I get a little bit better at it. Now it's time to actually make some money off them. I believe there's a market for high quality, local cut flowers in this community, but what if I'm wrong? Or what if I can't grow them well enough? I had the good fortune of learning how to grow vegetables from some extraordinary farmers, but they weren't flower farmers. There's a whole skill set there that I'm just learning through trial and error—what if I can't do it? Also, I haven't even made time to finish the new web page for the flowers. I didn't get all of the right bulbs I wanted in time, and I haven't over-wintered all of the springs flowers I wanted. What if I'm too late?? 
  3. Should I be marketing more aggressively? We've been so lucky for the last two years—pretty much everything we've been able to grow we've been able to sell. But what if that changes? What if I've already cashed in on the low-hanging fruit of customers and this year we don't hit our financial goals? I am just now starting to advertise for the 2017 Farm Share season—I haven't wanted to push it before now because our winter product availability has been limited. But now, spring is right around the corner and I still have another 20 members to recruit in order to start the season full. Not to mention the Sweet Donkey farm stand... I know our Sweet Donkey Coffee shop market is a great opportunity to expand our business, but it's not going to build itself... I need to be out there drumming up enthusiasm. But, then again it is still February (no matter what the thermometer tells us) and we won't really begin selling in earnest until April. So... we still have time right??

Woof. I don't know if I feel better or worse having written that down...

So let's reflect, there seem to be two dominant themes: (1) I might be wrong about everything. (2) I'm running out of time. 

What my sage advisors say to those two assumptions: (1) "relax everything's going to be fine. (2) You're doing great, you've done great, you have plenty of time." So... do I believe them??

Perhaps I should just put the pen down and focus on enjoying my nieces—what balm is there like the laughter of babies?   

Bye bye roosters

We killed the roosters this weekend. 

Finally! I've been waiting to do in these roosters since they first showed up on the farm. (Yes, it was my fault that I ordered the chicks incorrectly and ended up with all of these roosters, but still...).

We're farmers. We believe in raising animals humanely and eating them when the time is right. I have total respect for my vegetarian friends, but as a family we enjoy healthy local meats, particularly when they're born and raised on our own property!

But here's the thing: I don't like processing chickens. Frankly, it's gross. I mean there are some beautiful parts—one can idealistically paint a poetic picture of this creature's peaceful sacrifice as part of the full circle of life. Also, their feathers are beautiful and remarkably easy to pull. The various colors of red are striking—the lungs of a healthy chicken are vibrantly red, the blood from the neck is deeply, darkly red, the membrane holding the windpipe is a pale weak red, the gizzard is a rich purple red. This may seem a bit morbid, but this spectrum of color is a reminder of the beauty and complexity of life that we often take for granted.

The smell is horrible. I'm not a weak lady—I deal with a lot of rotting gross things. But the smell of the inside of a chicken is just not good.  Particularly, if like Alex (and me), you have big clumsy hands and rupture the intestines while trying to pull out the whole gory gut mess—yuk. 

Fortunately our foray into butchery was accompanied by my very experienced and accomplished parents. So, the whole episode really went off without a hitch; the birds met a peaceful demise, and I believe there will be some good chicken dinners in our future. 

That said, one thing is pretty clear: I don't think Thornfield Farm will be getting into the meat chicken business anytime soon! Here's a hearty thanks to my local chicken farmer friends—keep up the good work. I promise I will happily pay whatever you ask in exchange for your chicken labor!

 

 

The Organic conundrum

Our farm is proudly certified organic through the Ohio Ecological Food and Farming Association (OEFFA). We went the certification route consciously and on principle: we believe in the importance of distinguishing our produce based on organic, sustainable land management practices. 

For me, acting as a conscious and caring steward of the land is at the heart of farming. I love this piece of earth with my whole being. This land is my life, my blood, my sweat, and my tears. I work every day to protect and care for it and ultimately eek out a living off of its fruits. This is not a glamorous or lucrative business. This is a lifestyle; a choice to move through to world in a way that allows me to sleep well at night and wake up every morning proud of what I do and what we are building. This, to me, is what it means to be an organic farmer. 

I also believe (although perhaps a bit less strongly) in the importance of "organic" from a policy standpoint. I believe it is important for consumers to have a label to help them identify produce that has been grown in a healthy, sustainable way. For the most part I believe that produce labeled "organic" will be better for you than conventionally grown produce. However, if I had to choose between buying conventionally grown produce from a local farmer I knew and trusted or buying "organic" California produce from Kroger, I pick the local conventional produce. The organic label isn't perfect. It doesn't tell you everything about how your produce was grown and there are a lot of ways to "work the system". I worry about large producers who jump through the hoops of the USDA Organic Certification program but who are otherwise really just conventional Big Ag businesses. And yet, I still think the label is worth something and it is a step in the right direction. 

So, we carry on, filling out the paperwork, paying more for organically approved inputs and trying to toe the line with OEFFA to keep in good standing for our certification. But, I messed up. We were sent an official letter of notification that we are "out of compliance". Apparently I haven't been clear enough in our marketing and I may have left room for misinterpretation from our customers about the status of our land and therefore the status of some of our produce. Here's my formal apology for our apparent "commingling" of transitional and organic crops. 

Here's the deal: we currently grow on four vegetables fields. Two of them were eligible to be certified organic starting our first year of production. The other two fields fall in to the "transitioning" category. This is because some inputs deemed prohibited under USDA Organic code were used on the land prior to my management. One of the fields is what we call the "Main Field". Before I came home to farm, this field was a hay pasture. As a hay pasture my father annually put down a small amount of a very common chemical fertilizer. The amount of fertilizer he used was limited to that which was needed to replace the nitrogen taken out of the land in the form of hay. The other field that is "in transition" is an expanded incarnation of a garden that our friend and former farm-hand, Bobby, used to manage. Bobby is a great grower and I respect his use of the land, but he's kind of cranky and never believed in the Organic standards so I can't say for sure what kind of pesticides he may have used on some of his crops. Both chemical fertilizers and inorganic pesticides can be big problems for sustainable land management. If overused (which was never the case on this farm) the chemical fertilizer can run off into our water sources and cause significant damage to the wildlife and water ecosystems effected. Even more problematic, inorganic pesticides are bad for humans and bugs. In no way do I think a reliance on pesticides (even the organically approved ones) is a good management practice. Under my management all of our vegetables are produced strictly according to the USDA Organic standards and my own passion for healthy, sustainable food.

But, all of that is beside the point. Up to this moment, in order to deal with the confusing and (in my opinion) relatively inconsequential difference between crops coming out of the "transitional fields" and the crops coming out of the "organic" fields I have aired on the side of generalities. I don't directly advertise any of our crops as Organic and I don't have any signs up at our stand suggesting one way or the other. Instead, I focus on talking to people directly about our organic practices and the fact that some of our land is transitioning. Nonetheless, that isn't really appropriate protocol according to our certifiers and I can see why. It makes sense that farmers shouldn't be able to just automatically decide a bunch of land they've been managing conventionally can all the sudden be under the Organic umbrella. For big farmers selling large quantities to third party grocers and wholesalers I can see how "commingling" organic and "transitioning" crops would be a problem. But I chafe under the issue regardless. It reminds me of the reason I got out of public policy four years ago: you just can't write a federal policy that's going to work for everyone. I want certifiers to be policing Big Ag and helping maintain the "purity" of the organic standard. BUT as a tiny farm in nowhere'sville (sorry guys) Virginia I just don't believe I should be under the same onus of reporting as they are. And I'd chide myself for being lazy, but that's just not a trait you can really associate with farmers.

So anyway, after hemming and hawing over this for a few weeks, I've decided to put my big girl pants on and do what it takes to get the farm back in to compliance. That means, from now until March 2017 (when the Main Field will be out of "transition" and all of our produce will be eligible for certification) we will be labeling our "transitioning" crops at market and online. These crops include:

  • Broccoli and mini broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Cabbage
  • Kale (more than half of our kale is coming out of the hoop house which is Organic, but I can't bear to segregate the leaves in the wash station so we're just going to call it all "transitional")
  • Swiss Chard (same deal as the kale)

I hope and assume that none of you buying our produce will care at all about the scarlet "T" on your broccoli, but if I'm wrong, please come chat with me about it! As you can see I have lots of opinions about the Organic Certification process and always love to share :).  

It's that time of year again...

Ahh sweet fall! What a beautiful and relaxing time of year—at least in some moments :). In this moment I love it, I just had a huge farm-fresh bacon and egg breakfast, it's still warm enough to sit outside, and we just finished our last Saturday market of the summer season. Awesome! 

So, there's time for reflection. I've been pouring back through the notebooks and old blogs thinking about what I'd like to write down before I forget. Ironically, in reviewing the blog I found that I wrote almost exactly this same post on October 29th of last year... hmm must be something about this time of year :).

Taking advantage of my own efforts here's an annotated review of what I recorded last year with some new dates added to the mix:

  • April 15th, 2015 (part 1). Broccoli will not bring a good harvest in the southern heat if it is planted after the 15th (or maybe the 20th if I'm pushing it). Plantings in mid-April will give you a harvest by the first week in June. After that the heat and the sun will be such that the broccoli heads will turn yellow and bitter. Also at that point the cabbage moths will be in full flourish! Update 2016: our spring broccoli was awesome this year! We had a super warm and dry March-April that allowed us to make beds and plant them quickly and successfully. Both successions of Brassicas came to a full harvest this spring with no trouble. 
  • April 15th, 2015 (part 2). April 15th is also the earliest date to plant cucurbits. This is a risky planting because of frost. However, this we found that if the plants make it past the frost you will get a long beautiful first succession before the squash bugs and striped cucumber beetles show up. This year our first cucurbits succession bore fruit for 9 weeks, compared to the next three successions of cucurbits all of which only bore fruit for 3-5 weeks. Update 2016: perhaps because it was a warm spring and most certainly because we planted so many cucurbit successions in the Main Field in 2015 our first cucurbit crops of 2016 were a disaster. The cucumber beetles and squash bugs were on the plants immediately! They did finally grow through the damage and produce some fruit, but no with near the abundance of the first year—crop rotation is key for pest management!  
  • Redbuds, 2015. When the redbuds come into bloom so will the flea beetles. This will mark the beginning of the pest battle. Greens (and almost everything else) will have imperfections from this point until the 1st of October. Update 2016: the early spring brought the flea beetles even before the redbuds. Our precious greens had holes in them starting in April all the way until just this month. Ugh. 
  • April 20th, 2015. This is the time to start adding summer crisp lettuces to the lettuce successions. After this planting the lettuce will start growing much faster as the days warm up. If successions are kept tightly to 10 days or less you can still keep harvesting throughout the summer. However, oak leaf varieties will not grow to full size before bolting and butter heads will also begin showing signs of heat damage. Leaf lettuces and summer crisp varieties will do the best through the hot months. Update 2016: it was so hot this year! In July and August even some of the summer crisps were turning bitter. However, we found some new varieties that worked well and increasingly I think we can push non-summer crisp varieties through the heat by harvesting them small, watering constantly, and planting relentlessly. I love lettuce!  
  • May 1st-15th, 2015. The first two plantings of Spinach in May may or may not make it to harvest. It is worth planting Spinach all the way through May in case the weather is cool (especially the nights), but this is when they will start turning yellow and dying before full harvest size. Update 2016: May spinach plantings did not make it to harvest this year, it was just too hot. Increasingly it seems spinach is only a late fall/winter crop around here. But, we will continue to push for it during the spring and summer regardless 'cause it's just so dang delicious.  
  • August 31st, 2015. After this point the spinach should make it to harvest. However, it's probably worth starting successions in early to mid August just in case the weather shifts and the spinach makes it in early. This fall though, we lost our first few fall plantings to the heavy rains. It's worth noting for next year that the spinach needs good drainage especially at this time of year. Update 2016: Still true. We didn't get much out of our first late summer/fall planting but it seemed worth the try and very possible that some years with different weather conditions it might work.  
  • September 1st, 2015. This is about the time the light begins to change and we start seeing a real slow down in crop growth. It's worth starting to double up on lettuce plantings the last week or two of August and tightening up the successions into September. Update 2016: this fall light change is such an ambiguous and challenging thing to figure out. But, we did better this year. We started planting in the hoop houses much earlier and tightened up successions more successfully. However, we should have planted a much bigger succession of spinach when we first moved greens back in to the hoop houses in September.  
  • 2nd week in September, 2015. After this date cole crop plantings probably won't come in for a full harvest in time for the last markets. It's worth having two fall brassica plantings, but I wouldn't plant the first one much before the 1st of September (otherwise it will be too hot and buggy for good growth) but after the second week in September growth slows down and therefore the 50-70 day crops won't make it to harvest for the end of market season. Update 2016: True. Our first fall brassica succession was killed by late summer heat and harlequin bugs :(. Now our 2nd succession is barely producing for the end of market season and it's not at all clear if the third succession will produce any fruit before heavy frosts. 
  • October 1st, 2015. This is the latest date to plant greens in the hoop house in time for fall harvest. Spicy greens and Arugula planted October 1st were ready for harvest this year on the 29th of October. Lettuce planted at the same time will not be ready for another 2 weeks (which makes it very marginal for fall harvest). Better to plant the lettuce in the hoop house in early-mid September. Lettuce this time of year will hold much longer without bolting, so it seems better to get larger quantities in the hoop house early. Update 2016: Well, we made the winter farming leap, so this year I'm worried less about having everything ready before the "end" of market season... This year I'm proud to say we have two hoop house chock full of the most beautiful produce! Please be sure to come share it with us all winter long :) 

Well... I'm out of time for today. More dates coming soon! PS—I love my job! 

August blues

It's so hot and sticky. The humidity just hangs around the fields creating a bacteria and fungus cesspool. The bugs love it! It's a breeding and feeding bonanza. The weeds are happy too. They've steadily adapted to take advantage of these weather conditions. They grow so fast that they quickly get to seed before I can blink. Our plants grow super fast in this weather too—that is if they survive the soggy cesspool and the pest-breeding bonanza... 

This time last year I broke down and figured organic farming in the south was impossible. It's just so defeating to watch everything you've built begin to wilt and die. It's as if this tiny thread of control you've been hanging on to through July just snaps under the weight of overgrown weeds.

That's the thing about farming; control is an illusion. I never had it and I'm definitely not getting it back anytime soon. But, as long as I'm planting new, bright, healthy babies under a big blue sky full of sunshine it feels possible. Then, there's this thick, damp, heavy sky of August under which even the baby seedlings coming out of the greenhouse look sick and tired. It's like the weather and the burnout team up on my subconscious until I'm sure this rock will never make it up the hill. 

So, just for the sake of venting, here are the things that are the most frustrating:

  • I have no idea what to do about the bugs. Organic sprays suck. Rotation is good, but really hard to manage in terms of getting plants far enough away to make a real difference, particularly when you plant as many successions of crops as we do. Where can I put them to protect them?
  • Row cover is the devil. I can't win for losing with this stuff. Some moments I feel like it's magic—it definitely helps mitigate bug damage on small plants and I feel better under the illusion of protection. But then I pull it off and realize I'm just growing weeds. It also blocks light and traps in heat which seem to significantly increase loses from transplanting. Not to mention the labor costs of putting it up and taking it down constantly.. But maybe I'm just doing it wrong?? 
  • The disease factor seems impossible. I have no recourse against the spread of disease under these weather conditions. It's just a perfect petri dish for dastardly microbes. 

OK, now that I've got that out of my system, here's why I'm not giving up:

  •  I've built an awesome team. Nina and McCain are rockstars. Having them on the farm learning with me, struggling with me, and experiencing the woes and joys of farming with me is so gratifying. And Bobby is coming back too!
  • I'll never stop loving and appreciating the physical work of being outside everyday. The intense connection with the land, these plants, this dirt, and even these dreaded bugs is rewarding. We're building something great! 
  • I know I'm (slowly) becoming a better farmer. Every hurdle is a new lesson and even though there are definitely repeat mistakes, I can see progress. The fields look better now than they did this time last year and I can only trust that they'll be even stronger this time next year. 

So, I guess that's it, a little pep-talk to myself: keep it up, we're doing great, one way or the other this little farm is going to thrive! 

 

So... It turns out I'm Not really that tough

I've been experiencing some major blood-thirst. There are so many creatures plaguing this farm. The deer have come out of the woods with their oh-so-cute (and irritating!) little bambies and are trampling around the fields with complete disrespect for ALL of our fencing efforts. The groundhogs are fat, ugly, and hungry. Where are the coyotes?? And the Raccoons!! Ugh, don't even get me started on their smarmy little faces. Just chowing down on YOUR corn.   

So I've been hounding my father to teach me how to shoot a gun. I mean I'm supposed to be a farmer right? I should be able to shoot a gun. It's my Southern-born, Virginia-farm-girl, country-living duty to protect my crops from the local predators. Well, my father is of the opinion that I'm more likely to hurt myself, one of our buildings/cars/animals or god forbid, family members, than hit a groundhog with a shotgun. So, the hunting lessons haven't gone very far. Also (perhaps most importantly), even though he's loath to admit it, my father doesn't actually want to kill the creatures on our property. 

Alas, I've been watching all of these pests encroach upon my space... They've become a foil for any farming woe. I'll just shout "f**ing deer!" whenever a frustration hits me—never mind that really the floods/weather are currently wreaking far more havoc than the deer ever have.

So, yesterday (ironically) I had just finished ranting about my animal frustrations and my inability to kill when I found a snake in the hen house. It had its mouth wrapped around one of our eggs. Ah ha! Something I can finally kill. Here's the perfect opportunity and the perfect target. This jerk is just laughing at me, all smugly sitting in the box, expanding his crazy reptilian jaw around that otherwise perfectly delicious farm egg. I said to myself, I'm gonna do it. Here's my moment. I've been talking a big game about killing and this snake is all up in my business, he's going down! I grabbed him, pulled him out of the egg box by the tail, he starts swinging around hissing at me, trying to bite. The chickens are squawking wildly and flying everywhere. My heart is pounding—it's been a long time since I've picked up a snake and this one's mad. I get him outside and I'm looking at him and I freeze. He's actually really quite amazing and it turns out I really don't want to kill him. Also, I don't even know how. I'm just standing there in the middle of the road with this beautiful, big, teeming black snake in a total quandary. I can't let him go, he'll be right back in that hen house in a second. I'm all alone on foot with no means of getting him off the farm and plus, I've been talking a big game all summer about how farmers must kill predators. I had no choice, I just had to kill this snake. So... I did it. It was terrible. I killed him with a rock. It was gross and ugly and heartbreaking and not at all satisfying. I'm pretty sure I lost major karma points. I'm so sorry mister snake...please forgive me. 

So the moral of the story is: I'm really not that tough. I don't actually want to kill the irritating varmints that plague this place. I'm pretty sure this admission ruins my farmer street cred and I know it's a bad business decision, but alas, what can you do. I really need to get some cosmic karma points back asap. 

Farming is devastating!

Just when you think you have a handle on the moment...BOOM flash flood. Why?? Is this the universe's way of enforcing a sort of zen spirituality on farmers? 

I don't know, but what I do know is that I had a great week and a great weekend. All of the new big crops are starting to come in and our markets are strengthening, yay! Until...

Imagine: you go out to a lovely dinner with friends and come home to find the driveway washed into the pond—uh oh, an ominous foreboding. But, the rain is stopping and there's been bad washing on the road before, so... you figure everything is fine. Then, you wake up in the morning to survey the farm and realize that "oh s**t it was a really bad rain. Actually, a flood. WTF??"

So, you dig in, get down in the mud and start trying to replant all of the sweet potatoes who have been washed down to the roots. Then you get distracted by the huge potato plants that have been flattened by the rain, so you start scrounging to cover exposed baby potatoes before the sun turns them green and poisonous. Then you start struggling to repair all of the down fencing when you notice that the sugar snap trellising is concave and the peas are lying on the ground beginning to yellow. Then you see the rivers running through the baby beats and blurring the rows of just emerging carrots. Finally, you see the beans... oh the sweet baby bean plants... washed. Whole huge sections of two different successions of green, yellow, and purple french filet beans submerged and washed away.

So, then you just start crying. I mean what else is there to do? You're covered in mud, everything's a mess and the universe is definitely conspiring against you. I mean come on, the arm, then the puppy, now the plants??? 

OK. I'm exaggerating. It's not that bad, I think most of the crops are recoverable and for those that aren't, we will replant. But it just feels so unnecessary! Honestly, perhaps even more than the actual loss of crops due to farming weather disasters, I think it's the lack of control that is so devastating. You just can't do anything about the weather. No matter how hard you work, how smart you are, or how much you plan, there are so many things out of your control. So, yes, I think the world is conspiring to try to make me more a bit more zen—a blessing in a (very good) disguise perhaps?